[content warning for slurs]
I have sometimes seen arguments that imply that bisexual people partnered to heterosexual people do not experience homophobia.
It makes sense that people might think this is the case. There are a lot of concrete ways that being in a heterosexual relationship makes your life easier. Het-partnered bisexual people can walk down the street holding hands with their partner without having someone yell slurs at them. They can get married in every country. Their parents are unlikely to reject their partner purely because of their gender. I certainly don’t mean this post to erase these advantages or to imply that het-partnered bisexual people who consider themselves to not experience homophobia are wrong.
When a lot of bisexuals talk about our experiences of oppression, the word that comes up a lot is invisibility. This can seem like, well, a pretty privileged complaint. “People think I’m straight” is often not a problem that the visibly queer have much sympathy for. And while that’s invalidating of your experiences, it can be hard to think what material harm being taken as straight causes.
But I think het-partnered bisexual people do have a very particular experience of homophobia, and I hope I can explain the material harm it causes in a way that makes sense.
First, and most obviously, being het-partnered now does not erase the homophobia you experienced in the past. Familial rejection, job discrimination, and inadequate health care — to name just three examples– can have effects that last a long time after your same-sex relationship ends.
Second, many (perhaps most) het-partnered bisexual people are partnered to straight people. And straight people are very often homophobic. Thus, het-partnered bisexual people are often in a position of being in a committed relationship with someone who hates a fundamental aspect of their identity. This particularly affects younger or more vulnerable bisexuals, who may not have a lot of options or may not know how to filter for kinds of homophobia more subtle than waving around a GOD HATES FAGS sign.
The effects of heterosexual partners’ homophobia can be very severe. 61% of bisexual women and 37% of bisexual men have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking from an intimate partner, compared to 44% of lesbians, 35% of straight women, 26% of gay men, and 29% of straight men. 90% of bisexual female survivors report only male perpetrators; 79% of bisexual male survivors report only female perpetrators. The stark conclusion here is that, for queer people, being in an intimate relationship with a straight person is dangerous. The danger, I believe, is directly tied to the homophobia of many straight people.
Even bisexuals who are not abused can face harm from their partners’ homophobia. (I am mostly familiar with female bisexual experiences; I appreciate input from male bisexuals.) Some bisexuals are closeted to their partners, which means they have to self-monitor to avoid giving any sign that they might not be straight, even in their closest and most intimate relationship. Other bisexual women face extreme jealousy from their partners, who believe that they are “slutty” or will inevitably cheat because they’re bi. I myself have dated several men who treated my interest in women, not as if it were an important part of my sexuality, but as if it were a performance for them, a trivial thing that only mattered because they got off on it. They were confused when I discussed my bisexuality in a context other than dirty talk.
Third, the closet itself is a deeply traumatizing experience. As an excellent article about gay men’s experiences of the closet puts it:
“The trauma for gay men is the prolonged nature of it,” says William Elder, a sexual trauma researcher and psychologist. “If you experience one traumatic event, you have the kind of PTSD that can be resolved in four to six months of therapy. But if you experience years and years of small stressors—little things where you think, Was that because of my sexuality?—that can be even worse.”
Or, as Elder puts it, being in the closet is like someone having someone punch you lightly on the arm, over and over. At first, it’s annoying. After a while, it’s infuriating. Eventually, it’s all you can think about.
Closeted bisexual people have some advantages over closeted gay people: they can form relationships with people they love and have them socially recognized. These advantages can make it easier to be closeted. Het-partnered bisexual people can also find themselves de facto forced into the closet, particularly if they have an unsympathetic partner; being out as bisexual can feel like it’s oversharing or bringing up private information, even if mentioning your heterosexuality in the same context would be fine.
But many of the ways the closet can be traumatizing are the same. You hear what straight people really think about faggots and dykes when they don’t think any of us are around; in some contexts, that can be pretty horrifying. (My dad used to explain that he was fine with gay people as long as they didn’t flaunt it “like this,” that last accompanied by a mincing limp-wristed high-voiced caricature of a gay man.) You may have to self-monitor: avoid overly gay dress or body language, don’t look too long at someone you find attractive, hide your crushes, don’t mention people you find attractive when it comes up. While the studies are methodologically limited, research suggests that LGB people have higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse, and that concealing one’s LGB identity makes the psychological distress associated with being LGB worse.
Of course, the closet is different for different people. Some people find it easy to hide their LGB identity; they can either shrug off homophobic comments from straight people or don’t experience it. But I think a strong “het-partnered bisexual people don’t face homophobia” position requires you to believe that the closet is a privilege. We recognize that a twelve-year-old gay kid who can’t come out to his parents because they’ll reject him is facing homophobia, even if he’s not ready to date; the same can be true of the monogamously and heterosexually married thirty-year-old bisexual man.